Monday, March 10, 2008

Famous Last Lines

Nigel Bene has directed my attention to a list of the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels (pdf file) compiled by the American Book Review. It's a treat - I can only approve of any list with a sufficiently well-developed sense of the ridiculous to not only include Richard Brautigan, but to give him two slots (e.g., "P.S. Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise", concluding Trout Fishing in America).

There's a richness here that surprised me. That Brautigan line tells you exactly what goes on in his books. Similarly, look at the ends of The Adventures of Augie March ("Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America") or White Noise, which concisely summarize the entire novel. Or how about the endless end of On the Road, or the finale of Cat's Cradle, which give us the core of not just those novels, but of Kerouac and Vonnegut.

I have mixed feelings abou Catch-22, but look at this last line:

"The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off."

As a first line, it's pretty good - starts things off with a bang. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it's nothing special. But at the end of the book! Pretty great, a spur to the imagination.

Some of the last lines are punch lines. As I Lay Dying, J R and The Recognitions, Tristram Shandy - great last lines if you know the setup, but not that special if you don't. The end of The Awakening ("There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.") looks like empty poeticizing on its own, but it's not, not at all.

Some are perfect on their own: Huckleberry Finn ("I been there before"), The Stranger, To the Lighthouse. Tastes will differ, but there has to be something here for any good reader. The tastes or purpose of the source make the list heavy on Americans, especially experimental sorts. But I'm not sure there would be a lot more older entries even in a fairer competition. Tomorrow I'll suggest why.

This idea seems original to me. Meine Frau remembers a German newspaper that uses to have a regular last line feature. Here are some favorites of mine that did not make the list:

“There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.” The Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo (1923)

“Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.” The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1956)

“I take no notice. I go on revising, in the quiet of the days in the hotel at Androgué, a tentative translation into Spanish, in the style of Quevedo, which I do not intend to see published, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

“And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.” The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald (1995)

“As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.” The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

“Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods.” Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Feel free to leave your own favorites in the comments here, or at Nota Beale, or wherever you like.


  1. Oh this is lovely, am going to go peruse the site right now!

  2. "It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search for her missing children, only found another orphan." -- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

    "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil water- way leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." -- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

    "I am haunted by waters." -- Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

    "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

    "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" -- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (admittedly, this is better if you also know the opening line -- but conjointly? spectacular.)

    "His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." -- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

  3. I was somehow hoping that more of your favorites would include a reference to Sir Thomas Browne. The Melville probably does, actually.

  4. I am not as big a Browne fan as you are...with the exception of the Religio Medici, which I cannot do without. I cannot imagine not having read that book, and I cannot imagine who I would be had I not read that book. (Geraldine Ferraro, are you freaking paying attention to how to construct a complex sentence with lots of conditionals?)

  5. The Leopard quote is particularly nice - "Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust". And what a fine book it is too